Plans for a 48-unit, mixed-use development on Bell Road could be put on hold if North Whatcom Fire and Rescue officials appeal a recent decision by the Blaine planning commission.
The project, submitted by Blaine realtor Ron Freeman, includes 48 multi-family units and 41,000 square feet of commercial space in four buildings on approximately 10 acres of land near Steamer’s Espresso on Bell Road.
City planning staff determined the development would not directly impact the ability of the fire district to respond to emergency calls, but fire officials disagree.
The fire district already appealed a decision by the city’s planning staff, which was made as part of a state-mandated environmental review process (SEPA) earlier last month. The approval, called a Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS), is typically granted when a project is determined to have no substantial economic, environmental or social impacts.
Fire officials said they appealed the MDNS approval because they were limited in resources and wouldn’t be able to provide an appropriate level of service to the new development or existing residents. Planning commissioners, however, rejected the appeal 6-0 during a special hearing last Thursday, October 14.
According to pre-trial memorandum, planning commissioners said they did not believe the development would outstrip the district’s ability to serve its constituents and were more concerned about the cost it could impose on the developer, especially with regards to the city’s current political climate – Blaine City Council voted earlier this year to eliminate impact fees as well as new connection fees for water and sewer to make Blaine appear more appealing to developers.
The report also pointed out that because fire district officials gave no details on how the project would impact the level of service, there was no evidence it will put an undue burden on existing residents.
Their decision, however, will likely be appealed to Whatcom County Superior Court, fire district chief Tom Fields said. He added the department already struggling to keep up with an increased demand for service and that the anticipated 12 to 14 calls per year that will come as a result of the project could cause an undue burden on an already failing system.
“We’re being told we’re anti-growth but we’re not,” Fields said. “If you have a two-inch water main and you build a bunch of new houses, you’re going to have to start rationing water. But the city is saying they want 24-hour water seven days a week. That’s a contradiction in my book. The demand is going up and up and up and nobody’s making the pipe bigger and we don’t have the means to do that without cooperative means from developers."
According to an analysis conducted by Emergency Services Consulting, Inc., the district is responding to more than one emergency call about 15 percent of the time and that if two stations are out of service, the next guaranteed response comes from their Lynden station, which could be up to 18 minutes.
Fields added that about 3 to 4 percent of the time, the district is at what officials call a “system failure,” in which all three stations are responding to calls at once.
“Some people think firefighters just sit around and play pool but in reality, we’re very, very busy,” he said. “It only makes sense if you think about it – if you put more demand on the fire district for more services, we’re going to get to the point where we have to triage those calls, meaning if one of our responders is dispatched to a broken ankle in the city of Blaine, and we’re also being dispatched to a cardiac arrest in Birch Bay, we’re going to go to the cardiac arrest.”
If the decision is appealed, it will mostly likely be a land use petition act, or LUPA, which allows a party that is dissatisfied with a land use decision to appeal that decision in superior court, said Sidney Tribe, an attorney for the district.
Tribe added that the district will also likely file a declaratory judgment act to determine whether a SEPA official, in this case Blaine planning director Michael Jones, has the authority to impose mitigation fees for fire protection and whether the city has the right to ignore the fire district’s capital improvement plan.
The plan would have allowed the council to work with the fire district to develop mitigation fees for fire and emergency life support services so that costs for increased services would be borne by new developments. Blaine City Council, however, rejected it 4-2.
Council members Jason Overstreet, Bonnie Onyon, John Liebert and Scott Dodd voted no citing concerns that the fees could scare away new development and likened the district’s request to “extortion.” Charlie Hawkins and Paul Greenough voted yes.
Harry Robinson abstained from voting, but said he had concerns about the fire district appealing future development proposals based on SEPA review processes. The district also appealed a MDNS issued by Whatcom County planning staff for Fred Bovenkamp’s Horizons at Semiahmoo project in 2006.
Following the 2006 appeal of Bovenkamp’s project, the fire district board ordered staff to no longer guarantee their ability to serve new construction projects in their area to the county in writing. Whatcom County Planning and Development Services normally requires such guarantees from independent taxing districts such as NWFRS before giving approval.
A growing concern
Whatcom Fire Protection District 21 is approximately 147 square miles of mostly-unincorporated area within Whatcom County and serves more than 34,000 residents. The district employs 48 paid full-time personnel and has limited service from another 50 volunteer responders.
In 2009, the district responded to 2,470 emergency incidents, an increase of 7 percent since 2008. Fire officials say 2008 figures showed an 8 percent increase.
Fields said the district’s goal is for emergency vehicles to have a response time of less than 8 minutes 90 percent of the time. Right now, they are only able to meet that goal 64 percent of the time, he said.
“From our Birch Bay-Lynden Road station to the Blaine urban growth area, we’re seeing a 9 to 10 minute response time and that’s if the train’s not going by,” he said. “If the border patrol are doing x-rays or if they are loading or switching cars at BP Cherry Point, sometimes that will block the intersection and our response time might be 12 or 15 minutes. That’s a long time if someone is having a medical emergency.”
Part of the problem, Fields said, was the Whatcom Medic One levy, approved in 2005 to require larger departments to provide basic life support transports. Those transports can take as long as two and a half hours from the time a unit leaves the station until the time it returns and is ready for the next response, he said.
Another problem is the sheer size of the district and the limited ability to tax its constituents to keep services at par. Currently, fire districts are allowed to impose mitigation fees on projects that require SEPA review but single-home and smaller developments don’t qualify, he said.
The Washington State Legislature recently approved a law allowing fire districts to impose a universal impact fee on all new homes and developments, but that wasn't on the books at the time the district's capital facilities plan was developed, Fields said.
Fields said if those fees had been incorporated into the plan it would likely be about $995 per resident for single-family units and about $.45 cents per square foot for commercial spaces with fully functioning fire detection systems. A home with sprinklers would be about $497.
The project will go back before the planning commission during their next meeting on October 28. If the commission approves the project, it will be sent to the Blaine City Council for a final decision.
In the meantime, Fields said residents can help by prioritizing their calls based on the degree of the emergency and realizing that the district may at times be unavailable for public service calls.
“We’re not asking people to not call 911, but if you call us because your toilet is leaking, that is pulling units out of service,” he said.